Tag Archives: Screaming Dreams

Tiny Bits of Blackness in Paul Edwards’ Now That I’ve Lost You

ntily2bI’m normally not a fan of either flash fiction or its big brother, very short stories, but the collection Now That I’ve Lost You (Screaming Dreams, 2013; trade paperback), by Paul Edwards, has enough high points to make me re-think that viewpoint a bit.

There are 19 stories squeezed into 146 pages here (plus an Introduction and Story Notes), mostly reprinted from lesser-known small press magazines. Stories of such short duration, by their very nature, have zero to little room to develop characters, and yet Edwards for the most part does an admirable job of drawing characters who are distinctive, if not quite deep. For example, there’s the female protagonist of “Dead City Blues,” a survivor of the zombie apocalypse who becomes convinced that a slightly geeky guy from her school is somehow controlling the events. Or the paranoid, over-protective father in “Mine,” whose worldview proves to be far from trustworthy. Or the journal-keeping narrator of “A Place the Night Can’t Touch,” another apocalypse survivor, who’s managed to train one of the hungry horde, and doesn’t like the interruption to her little world when another survivor shows up unexpectedly. Or the conflicted couple at the heart of “Highways,” as expressed eloquently by one of the pair, “We’re at that stage where we’re too frightened to cement what we’ve got, and too frightened to break up.”

Other notable stories include the Lovecraftian “Cure,” in which a lonely man believes he may have found a magic potion to solve his solitude. In the haunting “Anja,” a love-stricken woman determined to get things “right” forces the object of her affections to relive the experiences over and over again. “The Art of Driving” stirs a couple’s experiences with sleepwalking, suspicion, an affair, and driving lessons all together into a somber stew.

The depressed, angst-ridden, and sometimes nihilistic characters that people Edwards’ tales sometimes threaten to become a bit too much, but more often than not, the stories win out. Now That I’ve Lost You is probably not for all tastes, but if brief bits of modern gothic are your cup of tea, there’s much to like here.

A Taste of England — Charlotte Bond’s Hunter’s Moon and Paul Kane’s Pain Cages

UK writer Charlotte Bond has shown promise with some of her short stories, in markets such as Dark Horizons and Spinetinglers. Hunter’s Moon, a 114-page novella from Screaming Dreams, is her first longer work and it unfortunately does not build on the promise shown in her short fiction. Hunter’s Moon focuses on four twentysomethings, two male and two female, who were friends in college, have since stayed in touch, and are now embarking on a vacation to a remote rental cottage in the French countryside. Faster than you can say “that sounds like a standard set-up for a horror movie,” unsettling warning signs begin to emerge, including strange sounds from the attic, vivid shared dreams, and waking “hallucinations.”

The nearby ruins of a castle, once owned by the cruel torturer Lord Moreau, who “worked his serfs to the grave and commanded them with fear,” seems to be the nexus, although only Jenny and Reece, two members of the group who possess some varying degrees of psychic abilities, seem to realize the connection — and the very mortal danger that threatens the foursome. Speaking of said group… it’s their characterizations and annoyingly repetitive interactions that largely serve to detract from the story’s strengths. The aforementioned Jenny and Reece are nominally the heroes, and their unspoken attraction to one another initially simmers just beneath the surface before eventually turning lukewarm and then stone cold (from the standpoint of the reader’s interest). The other two members are Eleanor, notable both for her self-centered, manipulative ways in general and in particular for her desire to get Reece’s attentions and affection; and Steve, whose desire to bed anything that moves is matched only by his frequent and inane attempts at humor. Not that Steve has a license on ill-timed and awkward humor…late in the story, a stripped and bound Reece says to Jenny:

“I always hoped you [sic] see me n-naked, but n-never like this,” he joked.
“We’ve no time for idiotic remarks, Reece.”

Indeed.

There is some real tension built in the latter stages of the story, as Moreau seeks to fully return from beyond the grave, but the deadline for his would-be re-emergence seems strangely contrived, and the dialog in the climactic scene is painfully melodramatic. All in all, Hunter’s Moon is occluded by some rather unfortunate clouds.

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Like some other authors I’ve reviewed recently, Paul Kane has proven impressively prolific during his career, with 16 titles produced in the last 10 years, to say nothing of a couple non-fiction titles and several anthologies he’s edited. His name is not as well known to US readers as some of the other fecund folks I’ve covered — such as Tim Lebbon, Michael McBride, and Ronald Malfi — no doubt largely due to the fact he’s British and many of his titles have appeared only from UK-based publishers.

Kane’s new collection, Pain Cages, is an exception to that, appearing courtesy of US publisher Books of the Dead Press. Pain Cages focuses on longer works, gathering four novellas, two of which are original to this collection. In his Introduction, Stephen Volk says that after reading this book “…you’ll realize ultimately that though the rough path through Paul Kane’s world involves a lot of pain and anguish, the pain isn’t what the journeys are about. Not really.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Volk says, because although the path through Kane’s work is indeed sometimes rough (in terms of both the characters’ journeys and, occasionally, the writing), and certainly describes no small amount of pain, the stories are fundamentally far more than mere exercises in sadism or vicarious shivers.

Take, for example, the eponymous title story, which appears here for the first time and leads off the collection. The protagonist, Chris, awakes in darkness, trapped in a cage with no memory of how he got there, nor the other unfortunate souls in adjacent cages, one of whom is being tortured and killed. As time slowly passes in his small prison, Chris finds out precious little about his captors or how he arrived in these circumstances, and his fellow captives are similarly clueless, but the reader gradually learns of Chris’s backstory via interspersed flashbacks. When Chris finally escapes his cage, the sights that await him as he seeks a way out of the facility initially seem a little over-the top metaphysically, but the denouement is unexpected yet perfectly appropriate

The other original novella, “Halflife,” is not nearly as accomplished, chronicling the fates of a former pack of teen werewolves, who’re reuniting due to the realization that someone may now, all these years later, be stalking them one by one. Reprint “Signs of Life” is sort of the dark literary equivalent of the mosaic approach that has proven so popular in films of the last decade or so, including the likes of Magnolia, Crash, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, and oh-so-many more. In Kane’s take on the approach, the perspective switches between several strangers on a train, each with a distinct and interesting backstory, and the focus is naturally on how their destinies ultimately intertwine and collide. It’s a well-done story, but I found the numerous astrological interludes, clearly intended to be a key aspect, to be distracting and failing to add anything to the work.

The collection closes with a very strong reprint, “The Lazarus Condition,” which begins with something of a “Monkey’s Paw” feel to it, as Matthew Daley suddenly shows up on his mother’s doorstep, despite the fact he’s been dead for seven years. Mrs. Daley and the police refuse to believe the interloper is truly Matthew, and his “ex-widow” joins that camp as well, leaving Matthew friendless and alone until he finally convinces a a nurse, who has first-hand knowledge of his case, to help him. Along the way Matthew’s story becomes even stranger, as he displays first a supernatural knowledge of others’ backgrounds (and, especially, sources of guilt) and later further extraordinary abilities, leading up to a confrontation with the man who killed him. It’s an engaging tale, and despite the presence of reanimated corpses, it’s about as far from a traditional zombie story as one can get.

There’s an impressive array of laudatory quotations fronting Pain Cages, from the likes of Clive Barker, Christopher Golden, Graham Joyce, and Sarah Langan, and while I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the most adulatory of those remarks, I can certainly concur that Kane’s insights into the human condition shine through the often cruel and harsh world that he depicts.

Nightmares from Screaming Dreams — the enigmatic Herbert van Thal

The Pan Book of Horror series ran for 30 volumes, between 1959 and 1989, with the first 25 installments edited by Herbert van Thal.  The series was notable both for its emphasis on contes cruels (and some would say too strong of a reliance upon tales of outright sadism) and for its strong sales numbers, at least for the early part of the series. In the biography/tribute Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares (Screaming Dreams Press, 2011), author Johnny Mains turns the spotlight on the somewhat mysterious and reclusive van Thal, who died in 1983, and delivers a a fascinating glimpse into the life of an eccentric but influential (at least in the horror field) man.

A slim 89 pages, the book is divided into five sections: a biography; a checklist of published works; facsimile reprints of some of van Thal’s correspondence with Pan authors; author interviews and comments; and a reprint of an article Mains wrote on van Thal for SFX magazine. The biography section is less than 40 pages, and leaves one wanting for quite a bit more, but it was obviously difficult for Mains to find many folks who actually knew van Thal, and were willing to talk about him. As Mains says:

“It took over a year to try and find a photograph of him and everywhere I turned I hit wall after wall. When trying to delve into his dealings as a literary agent at London Management nobody from those days who worked in the same building as HvT was willing to speak to me…”

Although the book’s smorgasbord approach to its subject matter feels a little disjointed at times, it makes for what is overall a compelling and insightful read. I should note, however, that I was never completely won over by Mains’ argument regarding the importance of his subject — “I believe that Herbert van Thal is one of the most overlooked yet important anthologists that this country has ever seen.” Given the critical disdain for much of the series, and the (admirably) blunt comments that Mains himself makes about many of the stories, it’s difficult to agree that van Thal deserves such accolades based on the quality of his output, although the quantity (i.e., sales figures) was indeed distinguished.

Lest You Should Suffer Nightmares is a very attractive book, featuring a striking cover portrait of van Thal by Les Edwards, and is limited to just 100 numbered copies, signed by Mains and Edwards. It may be necessary to be a horror geek like me to truly appreciate this labor of love (and it probably wouldn’t hurt to be British, either, in order to appreciate some of the local flavor), but for those with an abiding interest in the history of horror, there’s much to like here.